This week, Bishop Pierre Whalon published an essay he wrote on on reforming The Episcopal Church over on Anglicans Online, which has garnered some attention throughout our little corner of the interwebz.
The piece was detailing the nature and history of our brand of Anglican polity. Specifically, he was addressing the concerns of the seven bishops who filed an amicus brief in a Texas court over the summer, and while it can be entertaining to watch bishops bicker, that’s really neither here nor there.
More to the point is an observation he made in passing:
“The General Convention is at the top of our hierarchy. Following the principles outlined above, it splits authority for the whole church’s life between the bishops and an assembly of clergy and laity elected to represent each diocese. Both “houses” must agree for any decision to become authoritative. It should be noticed that the legislative model is Parliament, not the U. S. Congress. Convention’s decisions are unimpeachable; there is no court of appeal other than future meetings of the Convention to reverse decisions.
Specifically, the General Convention rules on what is the doctrine of the Church, its discipline (canon law), and its worship. All the clergy pledge to conform to that doctrine, discipline, and worship, and should they decide to do otherwise, they are liable to be barred from exercising ministry. Other decisions are the choice of bishop presiding the college of bishops and the president of the deputies’ assembly, the budget, and matters affecting all the dioceses, such as entering into full-communion agreements with ecumenical partners. It may make pronouncements on issues of the day, but these are not binding on Episcopalians. Until this last Convention, it could also ratify elections of bishops — for no diocese can choose and consecrate a bishop by itself.Thus when persons at their ordination(s) pledge to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church, they put themselves under the authority of the hierarchy of the church. Beginning with the General Convention, its Book of Common Prayer, and its canons.” (Emphasis mine)
In Santa Fe’s Roman Catholic cathedral, made famous in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, there stand two different depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Last month, when chunks of plastic began to fall off of my car, my resistance similarly crumbled, and I traded it in for a used Prius.
It’s this last one that turns out to be problematic at times. The Prius comes equipped with a nifty computer in the dashboard, which tells you instantaneously, via bar graph, how many miles-per-gallon of gasoline you are getting RIGHT THIS INSTANT. The minute you press the brake, the bar graph shoots up and you feel a sense of righteous accomplishment, but step on the gas pedal, and it shrinks back down…along with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of you, your children’s children, and no doubt, generations of polar bears living on shrinking ice floes.
This is a MESMERIZING computer. (And this is not just me. There are websites devoted to Prius owners discussing how to maximize fuel efficiency.) During the first weeks I had my car, I found myself staring at the computer, willing that magic bar to go up. It was all I cared about. Scenery, passing cars, angry semi-trucks behind me: all less important.
So, it strikes me that there may be some issues with instantaneous feedback. At the very least, these easily quantifiable statistics of usually-complex issues can prove addictive. (I unabashedly stalk Nate Silver online during election season and this is why.) They feed our human appetite for certainty, and stability.
But in the church, they can feed into our anxiety and tunnel-vision all too easily. It’s easy to get caught up in growth as a simple math game, and worry over immediate results. Will 5 new families come if we start this new program? If we play these new songs? We’ve made all these changes, where are the new people we were promised?! We start obsessing over the bar graph of growth in our minds, rather than where we’re meant to be going as a church.
Throughout Acts, the disciples gathered a community through an honest, and unflinching proclamation of what following Jesus meant, a lived-out gospel. They weren’t growing for growth’s sake. They were picking up the cross and following–to exile, to Antioch and beyond, regardless of personal cost, focused on their communities, and most of all, on the Cross of Christ. And this way of life drew others in like a beacon.
In a renewed, Spirit-drawn church, we need to let go of our anxiety about growth for growth’s sake. I pray for a church where we can expand our vision, look wider. I hope for a church where we can find the courage to proclaim, and live out, the gospel of Christ, and set our eyes on the cross. And may God give us the faith to believe that it will be more than enough.
This summer has been a season of reflection and consideration, not just for the Episcopal Church, but across the Christian spectrum. Voices across the Mainline spectrum have united in calling for a renewed focus on our mission and ministry to the world. And so, we, in the church, have been quite preoccupied with what this new thing that God appears to be doing will look like. Where are we called? What are we to do? What committees shall we form?
But, lest we forget, while we’ve been bustling around inside our churches, the unchurchifed world has twirled merrily onwards. This summer, Hulu started showing a British show called “Rev.”–marking the first time this show has been made available in the States (legally, cough cough). The show follows an up-and-coming Anglican priest who is appointed vicar at a tiny inner-city London parish (played by Tom Hollander). He struggles with disillusionment, odd parishioners, and pressure from the diocese to fill the seats at any cost, all the while wondering if what he’s doing makes any sense in the rapidly-changing world around him.
The show is brilliant as an examination of church life, so go watch it and cringe and laugh appropriately. (It’s here.) But what’s really been fascinating to watch is the critical reaction in America.
The AV Club, the Onion‘s serious, culture-discussing sibling, has been reviewing each episode as it appears, and has fallen in un-ironic love with the show. Each review has prompted the critic and the community of commenters to discuss themes of faith, doubt, God, and what it means to be an ethical person in this day and age. This went so well, in fact, that the AV Club interviewed the creators and writers of the show about their perspective on faith.
One of the unique hallmarks of the show is that it depicts people struggling with being faithful, and struggling with being Christian, but at least making an effort in the struggle. The protagonist, Adam, is frequently depicted praying, but never gets a response, at least directly. But he does keep talking.
When we talk about evangelism and mission, it is at least as important to clarify how the world sees us, before we figure out what we want to say to the world. The temptation is always to pass ourselves off as Brilliant Experts in Life, Faith, and Everything by virtue of our Church Attendance Excellence! Somehow, we think this will make people want to be like us, for we have, after all, achieved Excellence in Everything, and who wouldn’t want that?
But I don’t think that’s either believable or attractive. Reading through the comments at The AV Club, I don’t have the sense people long for a Stepford community to make them all perfect. I have the sense that people want to know that others struggle with the larger questions, just like they do. They want to hear the hard-won wisdom of others who’ve been through some similar struggle. They’d sort of appreciate it if they could see the put-together churchy folks laugh at ourselves once in a while.
And the good news for us is:
We can do all of that.